The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: P-Q

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Prov and the heart

We use the word heart now with the same meaning that it bears in the language of Scripture. We refer to the deeper part of the mind where character is formed. A man may believe the Gospel in the sense that he gives intellectual assent to the argument presented to him, yet with such shallow belief that he may quite fail to play the part of a Christian. To use an old phrase, "he is convinced but not converted". If, however, he goes further and believes "with all the heart", it will be "unto righteousness" (Rom 10:10). "Ye shall seek me", said God through the prophet Jeremiah, "and ye shall find me if ye search with all the heart." [Jer 29:13]

In this sense the word heart is frequently used in the Book of Proverbs. "My son, give me thine heart, and let thine eyes delight in my ways" (Pro 23:26). Death and destruction are before the Lord: how much more the hearts of the children of men (Pro 15:11). And referring to the undesirable patron, "Eat and drink, says he, but his heart is not with thee." [Pro 23:7]

All these passages may contain hidden depths, but the main meaning needs no interpretation. The word heart is used just as we employ it now. We may know what a man says, what he does and how he appears to us, but we do not know what is in his heart; how he thinks and feels. Does that smile cover an opposite feeling which would better be expressed by a scowl? Are those smooth words genuine, or are they intended to deceive? We cannot know what is in the heart of another man. We may be deceived even as to what is in our own, but all hearts are open and naked to God. "The fining pot for silver, and the furnace for gold; but the Lord trieth the heart" (Pro 17:3). In the work here mentioned the object is to clear away the dross whether in the fining of metals or of human hearts, but the proverb does not suggest that there is a perfect analogy. Rather does it imply a difference. Metals may be purified by men with fining pot and furnace, but the heart can only be tried and cleansed by God. The process of fining is far more complex and wonderful than anything that can be effected with metals. It is not merely a matter of removing dross, but something quite new has to be introduced; new hopes, new desires and in fact "newness of life."

In this trial and preparation of the heart man must be responsive. There is a profound meaning in the words "The Lord God hath opened my ears, and I was not rebellious." [Isa 50:5] Some men are rebellious even to the extent of making void the word of God. God gave to Saul a new heart so that he began his reign well, but he became rebellious and his heart turned to evil. His fall furnishes an excellent illustration of the proverb, "A sound heart is the life of the flesh, but envy is the rottenness of the bones." [Pro 14:30]

Perhaps he illustrated another proverb, well known to all readers though not much heeded in the world: "He that is proud of heart is an abomination to the Lord." [Pro 16:5] The expression proud of heart surely refers to a quality deeply ingrained in character. It is not a superficial pride easily perceived by observers. A very shallow pride is sometimes spoken of as vanity, and while that can never be a virtue it is often too slight to be accounted a vice. We are all apt to reveal a little of this superficial pride, especially if we are unexpectedly able to accomplish something in a field beyond the scope of our natural talents. A hopelessly unmusical young man who managed to play a hymn tune probably felt far more elated than did the young Mozart when at the age of fifteen he accomplished a feat beyond the power of any man living. Men come to perform their appropriate work as a matter of course, but it is amusing sometimes to observe the childish glee with which a really capable man will for the first time master a task which happens to be difficult for him but is quite easy to others.

A proud heart means something deeper and far more serious than this. It may go with an appearance of humility. It may be so well covered that even the individual is deceived. It rarely expresses its pride in words; it will on the other hand often use words to justify the proud act or attitude which is the real expression of character.

Sometimes, however, pride is naked and unashamed, expressing itself openly and taking pride even in its nakedness. There is such an expression of a proud heart when a man declares his determination "not to ask favours of God". This naturally goes with the decision that life is too evil to call for any thanks to the Creator. The proud heart gives no thanks for any blessings that have been received and scorns to ask for any blessings to come. It resembles the attitude of a ne'er-do-well, sponging on his friends all the time and yet affecting to despise them; too proud to ask them for any favours but not too proud to take without asking.

We depend upon the favour of God for every breath we draw, why then not ask for anything that we need? The proper attitude is shown to us in Scripture, and it is far removed from pride of heart. In everything give thanks, ask freely for all that you need, but always remember that in the sight of God you are a mere child, often wanting that which is not good, and very rarely understanding spiritual values.

Another way in which pride of heart is revealed is in man's reluctance to admit that he has been in the wrong. Obstinacy is one of the outward signs of the abomination within. How much havoc has been wrought by unwise insistence on "what I have said I have said". How rarely do we find the man who can be firm as a rock on matters of principle and yielding in matters of personal preference. It is much easier to find men who are naturally weak as water, but who are able to sustain a frozen rigidity when their personal pride is touched.

"The heart of the wise teacheth his mouth", [Pro 16:23] says the wise man; and again: "The heart of the righteous studieth to answer: but the mouth of the wicked poureth out evil things" (Pro 15:28).

This surely means that a wise and righteous man will bring all the powers of his mind for the choice of right words that will help the hearer. Feeling, as well as intellect, is engaged in the work. He does not "pour out foolishness", neither does he present a cold and apathetic statement of truth. "From the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh", [cp Mat 12:34] but all the time he is "studying to answer", guarding the door of his lips, so that he shall use right words.

A foolish man may speak from the heart, without studying to answer and with no guard on the door of his mouth. Then his words only express the feeling of the moment. There is a pouring out of foolishness the consequences of which may be very evil.

Perhaps the most searching and significant passage in the book of Proverbs is in the fourth chapter. "Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life." [Pro 4:23] There are hidden depths in this passage giving excellent counsel to those who will give heed.

We have known people to raise foolish difficulties, actually asking "How can I keep my heart with such diligence if the heart means the part of the mind where character is formed? I am the heart and the weaknesses of the heart are my weaknesses."

The appropriate answer to such an objector is to ask if he has ever heard of or ever tried to practise self control? If not, this subject is too advanced for his consideration, but if he knows exactly what is meant by self control, there should be no difficulty in beginning to understand this exhortation to be diligent in controlling the heart.

A man may control his natural impulse to commit a rash act merely because he fears the consequences. He may exercise such control for the better reason that he fears to disobey God or to injure man. He may make a more constant and diligent control of the heart in order that his character may develop in harmony with the divine will, and this regular guidance of thought and feeling is what is meant by keeping the heart with all diligence. The inmost thoughts of the heart have the greatest effect on character. "As he thinketh in his heart, so is he", or so will he be (Pro 23:7). These inmost thoughts are necessarily the most effective, for they are with us all the time and they are always genuine. Even the most loquacious are sometimes silent and the most honest sometimes conceal thoughts by words. But the inmost thoughts of the heart are with us in all our waking hours, and possibly even during sleep, and those inmost thoughts are subject to no prudential restraint except the laws we impose upon them for our own good. The momentary act of self control may have little or no effect upon character, but the continuous and diligent control of deed, word, and thought may have a great effect and indeed mark the difference between death and life.

This is just the problem set before us in the wise saying, "Keep thy heart with all diligence". [Pro 4:23] We can control deeds and words and in large measure we can control thought. We know perfectly well that in the myriad thoughts which flash through the mind there is the usual admixture of good and evil associated with all things human. Some thoughts are noble and elevating carrying with them an influence for good. Some thoughts are evil and if encouraged will lead to sin and death. Some thoughts are definitely good and helpful even if not noble and elevating. Some thoughts are mean and petty and will degrade the character even if they are not sinful.

No normal being can prevent unworthy thoughts from flitting through the mind as they are presented from outside or thrown up from the subconscious, but every normal being can decide which thoughts to encourage and which to reject. We have that which has been described as a spot light of attention which we can turn on to any line of thought we care to choose. We have a power which has been described as "awareness", and we are not merely the creatures of mood and feeling. If a thought takes shape in the mind we are usually quite aware of its quality. Is it noble, good, useful, legitimately interesting or amusing, weak, foolish, or definitely evil? We could place most thoughts in one of these categories.

Even if feeling is aroused, we are aware of the feeling and its tendencies. We can choose whether we encourage the feeling or thrust it from the mind by something more worthy. Sometimes men say with Jonah, "I do well to be angry", [Jon 4:9] when they are aware that they are not doing well at all. Often they exaggerate a grievance knowing that they are exaggerating. They can control such matters if they will.

Even thoughts which are soon forgotten may leave a permanent effect on the tablets of the heart, so that there is need for constant vigilance. A man who is wise enough to give heed to the words of greater wisdom will soon learn how to make use of his awareness and his powers of self control. He will not merely aim to control his actions in the hour of supreme trial, when yielding to impulse might lead to disaster; he will encourage the right kind of thought every day, making the right choice in little matters where the task is easy, and so building up stores of strength and character for the hour of trial when the right choice is difficult. All this and much more is suggested by the words, "Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life."


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